With the difficulty of finding affordable housing in metro Atlanta on the rise, the Cross Keys Sustainable Neighborhood Initiative held a forum April 28 in Brookhaven aimed at raising awareness of the problem.

The forum, whose host organization aims to improve quality of life in the Cross Keys High School cluster, was held at the Latin American Association and brought elected officials, citizens, and researchers together to discuss the problem of the nearly impossible living costs along the Buford Highway corridor and beyond.

Brookhaven City Councilmember Joe Gebbia speaks at the affordable housing meeting. (Katia Martinez)

Dr. Michael Rich, a professor at Emory University, presented his research on the affordable housing problem in Atlanta, which showed that, like most major metro areas in the country, it’s getting worse and won’t get better without several major partnerships.

“The affordable housing problem is what we call a ‘wicked problem,’” he said. “That means that the remedy or solution is beyond what a single entity or community can do.”

According to Dr. Rich’s research, minority communities are being hit the hardest. The Hispanic community in Atlanta and its surrounding counties has the highest percent of people who are severely cost-burdened, which means they pay more than half of their income just in housing. The recommended amount of money to spend on housing is no more than 30%.

Brookhaven City Councilmember Joe Gebbia said he’s been advocating for affordable housing in his city, but that there isn’t enough land available to make any large projects happen.

“We’re land shy,” he said. “I hope we can find a piece of land large enough to create more housing, but it will take working with DeKalb County to make that happen.”

Gebbia cited land banks as one of the more ideal solutions to the problem, since a government-owned land bank would be the least expensive way to create more units. That control also protects residents from skyrocketing rental rates.

“By controlling the land lease, you can dictate what the rent will be on the project going forward,” said Gebbia. “That’s how you really protect a long-term affordable housing component.”

Gebbia joined Chamblee City Councilmember Brian Mock and Doraville Community Development Director Enrique Bascuñana on a panel where they discussed what their respective cities have been doing to alleviate the problem. The answer was unanimous: not enough, and they can’t do too much more.

Emory University professor Michael Rich discusses the “wicked problem” of affordable housing. (Katia Martinez)

“It’s difficult because we’re such small cities with limited resources,” Bascuñana said. “We need to look regionally and for partnerships with larger government entities for this solution because on our own we don’t have the financial power to fix that.”

The city of Norcross has been researching its affordable housing problem recently. Lejle Prljaca, the director of both the Lawrenceville Housing Authority and the Gwinnett Housing Corporation, shed some light on the severity of the problem in the Norcross area.

According to Prljaca, Norcross has 30% of the extended-stay hotels in all of Gwinnett County and 84% of those people are using them as a permanent residence. More than one-third of those people have lived there for more than a year, and one-fifth have lived there more than three years.

“A vast majority of [these people] are stuck in these units because of the lack of resources and the lack of the affordable housing,” she said.

She also said that due to hotel tax and unregulated room rates, the majority of people living in extended stays end up spending more for housing than the average Gwinnett County resident because they can’t afford moving costs for a traditional housing unit.

Those residents are not counted by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, so Prljaca said their main goal in doing this research was to prove that Gwinnett County had a bigger problem with affordable housing than had been previously reported.

“We have thousands of families living in these establishments,” she said. “Fifty to 80% of their income is spent on their housing, so they can’t afford anything else.”

–Katia Martinez

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the photo of Dr. Michael Rich.